A Parent’s Guide to Basic Skills

The Good Old Days

I began teaching first grade back in the dark ages—the decade of the 1960s. Back then many children didn’t attend kindergarten, and those who did spent their days at play stations where they painted, dressed up, pretended to cook meals and built tall walls with blocks. Their day was rounded out with story times, snack and a nap.

In my first grade classrooms we started from “the very beginning.” Children learned the alphabet and their numbers in the fall of first grade. Many of them learned color recognition and how to cut with scissors. First grade was truly their first learning experience. By spring, most of them were reading well and doing simple math problems. No one was in a hurry to push for mastery ofskills in the first grade.

Today’s Academics

In today’s more academic environment, much of the creative play and art activity has moved down to preschool classrooms or daycares, and children are expected to dive into reading and writing, science and math in kindergarten from day one. A high degree of achievement is expected by the end of kindergarten.

Parents may feel the pressure of greater responsibility to introduce structured learning in the home. In our fast-paced culture with both parents working, there may not seem to be enough hours in the day. The result? Parents feel stressed over the possibility their child isn’t ready for the rigors of classroom learning. 

An Overview of Readiness Skills

Readiness for learning is much more than what a child can do with a pencil and paper. Social and self-regulation skills such as taking turns, listening and following directions and expressing feelings in a positive manner are essential foundational skills necessary for school readiness. The ability to cooperate and communicate needs positively smooth the way for effective learning. 

Knowing how to build friendships by demonstrating care for others, sharing toys and materials and carrying on appropriate conversations are also essential for readiness in the classroom setting. Children who know how to problem-solve in a social setting are able to avoid conflict and are thus more able to focus on healthy play and learning.

There are five basic readiness areas and corresponding entry level expectations to help you see where to bolster skills or possibly help you determine that another year of growth and preparation would be beneficial for your little learner.

It’s a wise family that is willing to give their child the necessary time to prepare for the rigors of classroom learning to ensure optimal success later. And, as most educators will tell you, boys often benefit from beginning their school years when they’re a little older and can focus and attend at a higher level.

As you scan through the skills below, ask yourself if your child is well-prepared in each area. If not, you can add extra support at home. Young children are very adaptable. They learn new skills quickly when they’re introduced in a positive manner. Even a few weeks of practice on a certain skill will produce good results.

Social/Emotional Readiness: Does your child…

• Have basic health and hygiene skills in place? (using the bathroom, washing hands, using a tissue, covering a sneeze or cough, etc.)

• Play well with other children, take turns, care about the feelings of others, share, cooperate, say please and thank you?

• Follow two or three step directions?

• Show self-control in words and actions, recognizing consequences of actions?

• Express feelings in a safe way?

• Clean up toys or work areas when it is time?

• Complete projects?

• Make an effort to build friendships by offering to work or play with others?

• Know his or her own full name, address, phone number?

• Know names of body parts?

• Know his or her own age and birthday?

Building emotional skills takes time and practice. Give your child simple chores to build responsibility. Give simple directions and support your child in completing the task. Talk about ways to get along with others and give reminders when necessary. Provide role playing opportunities to build skill in social situations. Provide proper instruction for hygiene skills. 

Reading/Writing (Literacy) Readiness: Does your child…

• Name and describe familiar objects in the environment?

• Speak clearly in complete sentences?

• Express thoughts or needs using words?

• Know children’s rhymes or songs, recognize rhymes?

• Recognize words that begin with the same sound?

• Recognize and name most of the letters and identify their sounds?

• Know the parts of a book—cover, title, pages, words, pictures?

• Enjoy listening to stories, ask and answer questions about the story?

• Predict outcomes of stories?

• Write his or her own name?

• Say the alphabet?

• “write” a story using pictures or some letters?

• Tell original stories or retells of familiar stories with a beginning, middle and end?

• Hear parts of words (syllables) such as birth day?

Reading and writing skills are extremely important to learning. Your child should hear stories read aloud every day and take part in the process at an ever-increasing rate. Ask questions as you read. Have your child make predictions and see if they were right. Point out simple words and talk about unique words in the text. Allow a child to retell a story in his or her own words. Change the ending of a story or tell the story with different characters.

Provide lots of writing supplies. Pictures will evolve into approximated letter shapes. Standard writing will soon follow. Allow your child to pretend play the post office, a store or an office to encourage all sorts of writing tasks. Make greeting cards for Grandma or write a menu for a local restaurant.

Physical Readiness: Does your child…

• Cut well with scissors?

• Hold and use a pencil?

• Tie his or her own shoes?

• Draw and trace basic shapes?

• Bounce a ball and catch a ball?

• Ride a tricycle or bicycle?

• Enjoy running, jumping and climbing?

• Hop, jump, skip?

• Sit still and focus on a story or other group activity?

• Move or dance to music?

Materials to help grow physical skills related to learning include crayons, markers, pencils, glue, scissors, paper and paints, puzzles, building toys such as Legos and blocks.

Encourage your child to run and play out of doors. Playing ball, using playground equipment and other outdoor physical activities will build skills.

Math Readiness: Does your child…

• Count to twenty or higher?

• Read and write numbers 0-20?

• Count objects accurately? (one to one correspondence)

• Recognize sets of greater or lesser amounts?

• Identify common shapes?

• Match simple shapes?

• Do sums to ten and solve differences within ten using concrete objects?

• Use words to describe objects by size, shape, color or other traits?

• Understand the ordinal numbers: first, second, third?

• Understand that problems may be solved in more than one way?

• Identify a penny, nickel and dime?

• Reproduce and extend simple patterns?

• Understand simple grids?

Math skills can be done orally or using manipulatives such as beans or buttons. Count the animals you see while riding in the car. Count how many blueberries there are in the bowl. Simple games such as matching and sorting games build math concepts. Supplies such as magnetic numbers, objects such as small plastic toys for counting—all contribute to building math skills.

Science/Social Sciences Readiness: Does your child…

• Explore the environment showing curiosity and asking questions?

• Show a desire to understand how things happen and how things work?

• Identify patterns and changes in nature and daily life?

• Make observations based on the five senses?

• Show an interest in family and other social communities such as church or other neighborhood groups?

• Notice ways in which people are alike and different?

• Recognize relationships between people, places and time?

Science and Social Science learning begins with observation. Make it a habit to observe the world around you as you walk through parks, drive to the store, or visit friends. Categorize and organize found objects. Study birds or insects and begin to build interest in factual information. 

Encourage discussion about various people and the places they live. Help your child begin to understand the richness of culture. Help your child understand the passage of time and events that took place “a long time ago.”

A child’s readiness for school depends on the cooperation of their family, their schools and the community as a whole. Parents are a child’s first teachers and the home is their first classroom. Parents who model positive relationships, provide a stable and healthy home and who engage the entire family in educational activities of all kinds will foster a desire for learning in their children. They will ensure their children are “learning ready.”

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and reading specialist. She is the author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun. Find Jan at www.janpierce.net.